At this year's Final Four in the Seattle Kingdome, there will be so much talk of tradition that the NCAA should think about setting up peach baskets and stopping play after each field goal for a jump ball. Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton will spin tales about his mentor, Hank Iba, one of the pioneers who took James Naismith's creation and turned it into modern basketball. UCLA's players will talk about the Wizard, John Wooden, who shows up from time to time at Pauley Pavilion, and about recent visits they've had from Bruin legends Marques Johnson, Mike Warren and Bill Walton, a trio heretofore best known to the players as, respectively, the father of Bruin freshman Kris Johnson, a cop on Hill Street Blues reruns and a network basketball commentator with wild hair. North Carolina coach Dean Smith will relate stories of riding the Kansas bench for all but the last 30 seconds of the 1952 NCAA final in Seattle, a game in which coach Phog Allen, a Naismith protégé, led the Jayhawks to a title by beating St. John's 80-63. And, of course, Arkansas's defending national champions will wax nostalgic about that magical year of...1994.
Well, the tradition theme takes a detour when it meets up with coach Nolan Richardson and his living-only-for-today Razorbacks. The Hogs don't do tradition. They also don't do video analysis or detailed scouting reports or any of that other time-wasting nonsense. "We play with the lions more than we play with the X's and O's," said Richardson after his team Hog-tied Virginia 68-61 in Sunday's Midwest Regional final in Kansas City, Mo.
We're not sure exactly what that means, but we do know that, once in Seattle, Richardson will not be interested in hearing about the two NCAA titles Iba won at Oklahoma State back in 1945 and '46, when the school was known as Oklahoma A&M; or about the 10 championships Wooden won at UCLA between 1964 and '75; or about the 1982 and '93 finals won by North Carolina for Smith, against whom Richardson will match wits in Saturday's semifinal.
The Reverend Richardson will find common ground with Sutton in their Arkansas connection—remember, Sutton coached the Razorbacks for 11 seasons, beginning in 1974-75, and took them to a third-place finish at the Final Four in 1978—and in their friendship with Bill Clinton. In fact, a few years ago Sutton advised Clinton not to rush things. "You can't beat President Bush," Sutton said then. "Why don't you wait for '96?"
A lot of people said Sutton wouldn't beat Massachusetts, either, but on Sunday the Cowboys pulled off an unlikely 68-54 rout of the Minutemen in the East Regional final at the Meadowlands to reach their first Final Four since 1951, when Iba was still at the helm. A lot of people also said that the Hogs, who have won one game by one point and two others in overtime in this year's tournament, wouldn't get to the Final Four either. And a lot of people said that Carolina would be run over by a deep and daunting Kentucky express train in the Southeast Regional final in Birmingham, but the Tar Heels won going away, 74-61. UCLA was the lone favorite (and only No. 1 seed) to survive the weekend, having rocked Connecticut 102-96 in the West Regional championship game in Oakland.
Though Richardson stresses the distinctions between himself and other coaches ("I'm very abnormal," he likes to say) and between his program and others ("We don't do things like everyone else"), similarities exist between the Hogs and the rest of the semifinal field. In describing his team, affectionately, as "raggedy," Richardson hit upon an excellent word to encapsulate this year's NCAA tournament. Raggedy, ugly, rhythmless, slipshod—hey, there are numerous possibilities.
In Birmingham last Saturday, for example, fans came to see a glorious North Carolina-Kentucky final, a matchup of two of the game's most storied programs, "a monumental game," as Tar Heel backup swingman Pearce Landry put it. What they got, for long stretches anyway, was Cleveland State versus Pan American. One enduring image captures the quality of the offensive play in the 60 tournament games played so far: Just before the final buzzer closed out the Arkansas-Virginia matchup, Razorback guard Alex Dillard bounced the ball high off the floor to punctuate the victory with a Spud Webb-like slam—and clanked it miserably off the back rim.
Bonehead plays like Dillard's notwithstanding, there is no doubt that defense has had much to do with the clogged-artery pace of many tournament games. As much as everyone will be talking about the post-up play of Arkansas's Corliss Williamson and Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves, the midair artistry of North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse and the fast-break brilliance of UCLA's Ed O'Bannon, defense is what unifies the Final Four teams, and defense is what got them to Seattle. Sure, you gotta have heart to get this far, but first and foremost, you gotta play D.
At first glance the four semifinalists don't share many defensive similarities. Arkansas employs its "40 minutes of hell" full-court pressure, while North Carolina, fearing that foul trouble and fatigue will expose its thin bench, hardly ever presses. Oklahoma State never presses but features a suffocating half-court man-to-man D, while its semifinal opponent, UCLA, goes with a zone press. However, all four teams make it difficult for the opposition to get into its offense; all four engage, in effect, in a battle of wills to dictate the flow of the game.
"Our intention is to make teams do what they're not used to doing, what they're uncomfortable doing," says UCLA point guard Tyus Edney. Arkansas assistant Brad Dunn puts it more diabolically: "Our defense puts you in a position where you've got to make a decision. Are you ready to make a decision? Are you sure you're ready?"